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King Baudouin Stadium – Belgium

4 Nov

belgium1

Belgium – 1

Wales – 1

World Cup 2014 Qualification: Group A – 15th October 2013

So that’s the way the campaign ends, not with a bang, but with a wimper.

You see, Wales’ “golden generation” campaign didn’t progress as well as most Welsh were quietly hopeful after the European Championship campaign started. It seems to be a bit of a gallows humour amongst the Welsh faithful that we play better when the campaign is lost – something true of this one after we mathematically had nothing to play for after a defeat to Macedonia. As such we began picking up points, defeating Macedonia at home before going to the last game against Belgium.

Belgium themselves have their own golden generation, but unlike the Welsh, they have excelled themselves, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 12 years with relative ease. Looking through the side you can see why: Kompany, Hazard, Lukaku, Benteke on their own would get into any team anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Lukaku at Chelsea). When you consider that Mingolet – one of Europe’s best keepers – can only make the bench, you can see why this golden generation is a lot of people’s outside shot to do well in the finals.

belgium2

We arrived in Belgium the Sunday before the match for a day to look around and a few beers. This was a family affair as well as local affair – my brother made his first trip on a Wales away visit, consigning him to a lifetime of dejection. However he was due to arrive on the Monday, and the Sunday saw us find the famous Delerium bar, to have a beer or two.

Monday saw us take a quick look around the city, before heading out to view a couple of football grounds – FC Brussels and Anderlecht. The first one in particular was interesting as I always like viewing lower league football grounds in other countries, and see how they compare to Conference North standards – this would’ve been a “borderline may meet ground grading” at best.

The next day, we headed for a smaller look around the city, before I met my brother. We kind of got the other side to Wales away with him – rather than enjoy Belgian beers, they found the first Irish Bar and drank themselves silly on cheap rubbish. Each to their own but I preferred the beers I was drinking the night before – though to be honest as far as Wales away goes this was a relatively sober affair.

belgium3

We arrived at the stadium and us being us we got off at the wrong stop – or rather the stop that wasn’t closest to the Welsh away end, but instead we walked through an army of Belgian fans. Like all the Belgians we spoke to on our trip, they were respectful and very friendly, I suppose the fact that the game was effectively a party made them a lot more welcoming but I am pretty sure they would be the same even if there was something to play for.

We walked through a wall of Beglian fans that descended on the stadium, everything though was happy and smiley, rather than troublesome. It was a cracking atmosphere that wasn’t dampened by the dismal weather.

After looping the stadium, we found our entrance where at that point I proceeded to lose my companions. Nevertheless, I took a seat inside the stadium.

The stadium was massive! It was probably not as big a Wembley, but because we were placed in the upper tier corner away from the pitch we could see everything. The view was fantastic but there was no way – unlike other trips – we weren’t going to outsing our Belgian rivals for the night.

The game kicked off and Wales started amazingly how they did against Scotland, by playing keep-ball for the first 3 or 4 minutes. It actually was surprisingly effective, as it took a little bit of the sting out of the game. Belgium did eventually get a few chances, but nothing concrete – Lukaku had a double chance but in a half full of less than-half chances, it was probably no suprise that the game remained 0-0 at the break.

We were treated to a Belgian rapper at half time, rap a few songs which got chants of “who are you?” from the visiting contingient – the natives seemed to enjoy it though. More abuse from the Welsh was aimed at the referee, who let some strange decisions go, including what appeared to be a stonewall penalty for Simon Church after he was seemingly bundled over in the box.

belgium4

The referee didn’t get any better in the second half, particularly when Ramsay was bundled over just on the outskirts of the box. It was a clear foul and play stopped, only for the ref to not blow the whistle. Both sides were taken aback by the decision, which – when play stopped for a less inocuous tackle no more than 15 meters away, Bellamy marked his last match in a way only he knows – getting booked for gobbing off to the (admittedly terrible) official.

It got worse for Wales when an appearingly harmless throw in found it’s way to Kevin de Bruyne in the box and he scored, sending the Belgians into a frenzy. It was deserved but in the same way undeserved, as the visitors had played well keeping one of the World Cup favourites at bay for nearly 70 minutes.

After the goal Belgium pressed for a second, having a few decent but nothing clear-cut, but Wales had the chance to equalise: Wales had 3 shots in the area that brought either a diving save or a block, but it seemed like all hope for a point was lost until the 88th minute, where Arron Ramsay found himself in the box and, from an acute angle, he slotted the ball inside the goal sending the Welsh fans into a frenzy. They had a chance to win it too, but a square ball into the box was a bit behind the retiring Bellamy, and it wasn’t to be. In fairness a 2-1 win wouldn’t be quite justified, and we’d rain on the parade of our hopefuls. A 1-1 draw saw the Welsh fans go home happy.

To be honest, I doubt the Belgians cared about the result – as afterwards they were treated to a congratulatory firework display, which meant leaving the stadium was relatively quick and painless – certainly compared to Wembley or Hampden park, it’s something Europeans just seem to get.

The next day I said goodbye to our travel companions, as they were heading home. Me on the other hand was continuing my holiday, as I headed to Cologne, before seeing my first Bundesliga game in Dortmund.

Hampden Park – Scotland

28 Mar

scotland1

Scotland – 1

Wales – 2

World Cup 2014 Qualification: UEFA Group A – 24th March 2013

If you have been following this blog to almost stalkerish levels (or – more than likely – I told you), you may be aware of a few posts missing, but probably the biggest one being Bulgaria away at the tail end of Wales’ campaign to qualify for Euro 2012. Well the truth is I flew out to Bulgaria, but after getting scammed in a bar, I had to head back to Bulgaria a day early, missing the game.

As such, I hadn’t been to a Wales away game for ages, but was still keen to go to more games. As such when the draw was made (a draw I watched in my mate’s floozy at the time’s house in Wythenshawe), one game piqued my interest more than any other.

Scotland, in Glasgow.

Immediately with gusto, I texted my Glaswegian mates to inform them of the game and I was heading up to see them on a random day in March 2013. Being summer 2011, they said I was mad, and get the Olympics out of the way before even planning.

Sadly, my extreme pre match enthusiasm petered out, and I was left just to go on my own to Hampden Park, but although I was on my own, I was not alone.

The day of the game arrived and I woke up with absolutely zero hangover. The night before I attended a pre-match party in a pub in The Iron Horse, the Glasgow home of the Tartan Army. Much fun was head sharing pints and stories and away trips with the Scottish fans (which included a bunch of German fans), so to wake up non hungover was a pleasant surprise.

After a wee bit of culture in Glasgow (which you can see results of here), exploring the city and seeing the cathedral, I headed to the warm confines of my hotel to get ready for the game. It should be said – and not forgotten – that the weather was absolutely Baltic. I knew Scotland would be colder than Manchester, but it was absolutely freezing, and there was some doubt that the game would be called off, along with my games the next days – Rangers vs Stirling Albion and Partick Thistle vs Livingston.

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Not so though, and the game went ahead. 3pm came and I headed to The Iron Horse for an afternoon of patriotic verbal jousting, but on the way to the ground I stumbled across a fellow Colwyn Bay fan, and we headed to another boozer for a few pints.

The atmosphere in this pub was a lot more muted, but still good fun. I kind of thought that The Iron Horse would be louder and funner, so I tried to drag my fellow seagulls to this pub. I was successful, but upon arrival the pub was full! Disaster! After a pint in a pub across the road (where I felt so uncomfortable due to overly friendly Scots buying pints, and my mates abandoning me to try and get into the Iron Horse again), a successful foray into The Iron Horse, and then an overly unhealthy tea of grease and chips, I headed to the game.

scotland2

Hampden was a blizzard, but buzzing and after a friendly train journey and my desperate search for a match badge, which saw me buy three of the buggers, I entered Hampden Park. To say it was cold was a vast understatement. Rival fans were keeping themselves warm by singing songs to each other, but I preferred the more traditional way of a scolding hot tea.

The teams arrived onto the pitch with an impressive level of pyrotechnics for teams bottom and second bottom in the World Cup Qualification group, and after the anthems (with the Scottish one sung by Amy MacDonald, bonus! I bloody love Amy MacDonald!), the match begun.

Wales pressed for an early goal, and nearly got it with the opening attack which was superbly blocked, and Scotland were forced into an early change with their striker Steven Fletcher being stretchered off following an innocuous challenge, Wales dominated the play for the first 20 minutes, with much of the play being in the home side’s half, so it was a surprise when – on the stroke of half time – Grant Hanley had headed in from close range from a corner, Wales’ inability to defend corner

scotland4

The goal sent Scotland fans into a frenzy, and were given a further cause to celebrate when Gareth Bale – Wales’ great hope – was withdrawn on half time for Jonathan Williams. At the time, baffling. In hindsight, a masterstroke.

Scotland began the second half brighter, with a shot ricocheted off Boaz Myhill’s upright, but Wales pressed, and were denied an equaliser from Andy King when it was adjudged that the keeper was infringed in the build up.

The game changed however on the 70th minute, when Chris Gunter was fouled in the box by Snodgrass, who received his marching orders, and Ramsay thundered in the equaliser off the bar, a penalty even now I still thought he missed. Three minutes later Wales took the lead, when a cross from Andy King found the head of Hal Robson-Kanu, who headed it beneath the keeper.

Following the two quick goals, the atmosphere changed with the home fans, as there looked like no comeback for the Tartan Army. In truth, I think the fact that most of the fans both froze and sobered up, meant the atmosphere wasn’t quite as loud as the first half. Nevertheless, Scotland was given a chance where Arron Ramsay cynically brought down James McArthur when the latter was through on goal. However, the resultant free kick was blasted over, and Wales win for the first time with me in attendance. Scotland 1 – 2 Wales.

After the game the queue to the station back to the city centre was large, and we queued for over an hour, everybody was in high spirits though, and many of the Welsh away supporters would say they’d join their new found compatriots in the Tartan Army in two more games, that followed the next day.

Old Trafford – The Olympic Games Football

30 Jul

Egypt – 1

New Zealand – 1 &

Brazil – 3

Belarus – 1

The Olympic Games Football, Group C Matches – 29th July 2012

So after 7 years, the Olympic Games are finally here.

If you were to believe the press coverage leading up to the XXX Olympiad (I like calling it that), you’d know that there were a bunch of monumental screw-ups, and questions were being asked about the games. One of them were the ticketing – how many tickets would end up in the hands of fans, and how many would go to people genuinely interested in it?

The first round of tickets offered were offered via a ballot, and for a long time, the football tickets – by far the easiest tickets to get – were the only tickets I could get my hands on. I later manage to get Handball tickets (which follows in a couple of weeks on this blog), at the second round, first-come-first-serve of tickets being sold.

Anyway, first up was football, and – thankfully – no Team GB. Instead I get two nations with a remarkable football pedigree, and two other emerging nations in games. I left my house at the obscene time of 9:30am on a Sunday to head to Old Trafford for the first time. The home of Manchester United is the closest ground to my house, and yet, before today, I’ve never been. Been to the second closest football ground to my front door (Brantingham Road, the home of Maine Road, that ironically began as a Manchester City fan team), but not the first.

This appeared outside my home recently.....

As I headed to the Metrolink stop (which I board every day to go to work), I got greeted by one of the many volunteers helping at the games. I kind of imagine that they have to undergo a Clockwork Orange esque scene of being forced to watch puppies, kittens and rainbows, they are so incredibly cheerful! I got helpfully pointed towards Old Trafford, and – after a rather efficient bag search – I was in the ground.

They say arrive two hours before the games, the entire process meant I was in the ground an hour and 45 before kick off, but absolutely no complaints about the seats! Third row, and just about under the covers. It resulted in a time-killing phone call to the parents to describe where I was, and to look out for me. Nothing like crippling the mother and father’s day by forcing them to watch football, is it?

Egypt probably not taking the warmup as seriously as they should

After being entertained by DJ Spoony, who was providing warm up (which lead to a few moments of resounding boos, most notably when he asked if there were any Manchester United fans in attendance), I headed off for a sausage roll. I kind of wish I didn’t as it was the single most revolting thing I’ve ever eaten. Rubbery and borderline sickly, I expected better from the 19 time Premier League Champions. The game began to fill up, though oddly for the first game there were empty seats next to me. Those that were there (which was announced as a shade over 50,000) were mainly Egyptian fans, and come midday, the match kicked off.

Empty seats. Brazillian, not corporates, incidentally.

Egypt straight away seemed like the much stronger side, and seemed a lot more value than their previous game (a 3-0 defeat to Brazil), so it was surprising when the All Whites took the lead, a corner taken by Michael McGlinchey was flicked on by Tommy Smith, which lead to Chris Wood of West Brom’s fame to bundle into the net. In literally the first attack for New Zealand, they were 1-0 up.

The lead didn’t last for too long, however, as Mohamed Salah equalised just on the half hour mark burying a cross beneath the New Zealand keeper, who played well, and did get his hand to the ball. Come half time, the score was 1-1.

Egypt look good for the win but struggled the second half.

The second half was a lively affair, with Egypt having most of the ball, but New Zealand defending resolutely. Very few clear cut chances were present until injury time, which had the most remarkable passage of play I’ve seen at a football match.

Emad Moteb raced onto a ball in the box, and dodging and weaving between players, he had the goal at his mercy. Instead of putting the game beyond doubt, he blasted it over. Egypt, thinking that was it, fell asleep only for New Zealand to counter attack. A chance went straight at the keeper, who launched a final counter attack. Although it lead to a decent chance, it was easily save. Mark Clattenburg brought the game to an end with the honours even, with the crowd nicely warmed up for the real stars – Brazil.

The next World Cup Winners (and West Ham's James Tomkins)?

An hour break was between the games, but nevertheless much of that hour was spent watching the fascinating Brazil training sesson. As somebody who has taken photos at football matches you can kind of predict where the ball will go. Not with Brazil, some of the tricks and their ball control was superb. The atmosphere picked up as well, as the sea of red that was a mixture of Egypt fans and empty seats changed to a sea of yellow for Brazil.

As the teams were announced, the first cock-up of the day occurred. One of Brazil’s substitutes was announced as the rather unBrazilian James Tomkins. James Tomkins is one of Team GB’s footballers, so yes, massive screw up.

Neymar

Belarus though had much cause to celebrate. Qualification for the first time in an Olympic games, this team – if a little older – could become a challenger to the European elite. You could see it on the emotion of the players playing before kick off, which happened soon after 3.

Brazil seemed content to pass the ball in front of Belarus, who went through the first three minutes without touching the ball once. It was a surprise of Eric The Eel proportions when Renan Bardini Bressan (a favourite on Football Manager) scored from Belarus’ first attack to put the Eastern Europeans 1-0 up after 7 minutes. The lead lasted until the quarter of the hour mark, when the latest Brazilian hero Neymar sent a glorious cross to the far post for Pato to head in. No more goals occurred in the first half, despite much Brazilian pressure, and the game was 1-1 at half time.

Oscar had a very strong second half.

The second half kicked off, and Neymar began to run the show. After a couple of mazy dribbles past a few Belerussian players, he was fortunate to get a free kick 35 yards out when it appeared he (accidentally) kicked one of the Eastern European centre backs in the back of the head. There was no mistake with the free kick, leaving the keeper well beaten with the finish, in what was the goal of the game.

PICK THAT ONE OUT!!!

Although it didn’t kill the game off, it was still all Brazilian pressure, and the game was finally over when Neymar took the ball past two players, backheeled it to Chelsea new boy Oscar, who rifled the ball into the back of the net. Final score, Brazil 3, a spirited Belerus 1.

I left the games beaming from ear to ear. Sod the ticket fiasco, sponsorship and G4S. Today was watching the greatest sport on Earth played at the greatest event on Earth, with possibly one of the greatest teams on Earth. Nothing can put me off, not least the three empty seats beside me.

Yes, those empty seats? Well it may have played into my hands. After checking the London 2012 website, tickets for a Thursday early morning session of Canoe Sprint have come available. It’ll be an early morning trek to Buckinghamshire, but for a once in a lifetime experience, it’ll be worth it.

A once in a lifetime experience, which I’m experiencing three times in two weeks now.

The Safety Net Stadium, Winch’s Field – Herne Bay

21 Nov

This is a guest post by Ian Murphy.

Herne Bay – 1

Sevenoaks Town – 0

Kent League Premier Division – 12th November 2011

I always look forward to away games at Herne Bay for the simple reason that they are always entertaining. The only problem is for the last three seasons these trips have been in either February or November. The low temperature didn’t put the paying public off with the game pulling a crowd of 170.  I always look forward to away games at Herne Bay for the simple reason that they are always entertaining. The only problem is for the last three seasons these trips have been in either February or November. The low temperature didn’t put the paying public off with the game pulling a crowd of 170.

Being one of the bigger clubs in the Kent league, the trip to Herne Bay always seems to inspire visiting teams to up their game, and based on some recent results, the Oaks needed to do this. With two minutes on the clock, it was hard to believe that there was a twenty point gap between the sides. Sevenoaks went straight forward and shot wide from an early free kick. The game carried on at a fast pace for the rest of the first half, although neither side could find the back of the net

The handful of travelling fans went into the bar at half time pleased with performance their players had put in. This didn’t change for the first half an hour of the second half either, as both teams started pushing for the first goal. Herne Bay always looked stronger and were able to put in more shots both on and off target with the Oaks keeper proving his ability on numerous occasion.

When Herne Bay won two consecutive corners, the Sevenoaks supporters started to look uncomfortable, and as the ball came into the box, the defence struggled, and with the goalie appearing to drop the ball, Herne Bay were able to make the breakthrough with 81 minutes on the clock.

The referee waived away the protest from the keeper, and got the game underway again very quickly. To their credit, Sevenoaks never gave up looking for the equaliser, which some would say they deserved, and in the last minute, forced a superb save from the Bay keeper. As the ball spiralled over the bar, the referee called time on the game.

Overall it was a good game that could prove decisive at the end of the season. The performance from Sevenoaks definitely made the train journey home seem much quicker.

Wembley Stadium – England

12 Sep

England – 1

Wales – 0

Euro 2012 Qualifying Group G – 6th September 2011

A wonderful sense of timing that my fiftieth ground I visited was Wembley Stadium, the supposed “Home of Football”.

I tell a lie, I had been to Wembley Stadium before, to watch an American Football game between the Tampa Bay Bucaneers and the New England Patriots, but this was the fiftieth ground I had seen a game of football played. I made a concious decision last year that as Liverpool nor Colwyn Bay was ever going to play a game in Europe, the only way I’d care for a game abroad would be to follow Wales on their travels.

Wales fans were in good voice

I’ll be honest, I really only joined the Wales Travel Gold Club for one game, the game against Switzerland which Switzerland beat Wales 4-1. I was in Switzerland as a time so I thought I’d extend my holiday to see that game, but as time went on, and I got literature and spoke to people, one game was looming on the horizon and I thought I could go. The game was against the Auld Enemy. The game was against England.

I’ll be honest, as country goes, I quite like England. It’s provided me with an education and a career. As a football team, they are up there as one of the most hated. As Englishmen may struggle to appreciate, but the consistant self congratulatory and celebratory support, at the expense of the other home nations, is frustrating. Even more so when the coverage on the television on Tuesday was all about how England were going to negotiate Wales like we were an entity like Lithuania, a lot of eyes were opened on how bad the “British” media’s coverage of the national game is.

Reason #230 why I hate England - Club Wembley

But I wasn’t watching it on the television, I was there.

Or I was planning on. You see, London has this wide range of underground railways known as “The Tube”. The FA, in their infinite wisdom, has built Wembley in a location that’s only served by one of the underground railway lines – known as “The Metropolitan Line”. This line was closed due to flooding, meaning that everybody had to arrive at the overground line, or go on the tube to the Jubilee Line to a station that’s a bit of a walk away. I switched to the overground line to get to the stadium, and was running late. It was embarrassing, for the first time ever I’d missed the start of the game.

As I took my seat, we were 30 seconds in. Amazingly, Wales hadn’t conceded yet (joke), but the noise was incredible. With the 75,000 odd England fans and the 1,500 odd Welsh fans all singing and cheering their teams on. There was also duelling bands, with the mainstay of the England band that plays the Great Escape being drowned out by the new entity of a Welsh Tuba – a tuba – playing Men of Harlech. After 5 minutes, the 75,000 English fans died down. The Welsh didn’t, willing their team along to what would be an amazing upset.

England Rarely Attacked, leaving Wales to soak up balls

The game began with England pressing without really threatening, and Wales attacking the flanks and through the centre with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsay. Bale was targetted by the English defence, with him getting chopped down by Milner on the 30 minute mark being the only noticeable moment. Wales fans were in great voice, so it was with cruel irony that the only chance they had of the game. Stewart Downing managed to get behind the Wales defence and pull the ball back to Ashley Young, who buried the ball past Wayne Hennessey to send the England crowd into ecstasy and Welsh fans silent.

For about 20 seconds.

Welsh fans soon found their voices again,and England fans soon sat down and watched the match in silence. This brought out a chant of “You call it Wembley, we call it Library”, which continued until half time.

Half time came and as I was full I didn’t get to experience the wonderful Wembley catering at £9 a hamburger, so settled on a meagre £2.20 bottle of water. I returned to my seat to sit down for the first time since I left Wagamama’s outside Liverpool Street Station. I watched the half time presentation (to a deserving ex-servicemen about to compete in the paralympics), noted at the evacuation of the “Club Wembley Seats”, before standing up for the second half.

A rare England attack. Alas, the one they scored one.

Second half began and England began threatening again with deathly silence. After a while, with the Barry Horns ably providing the background music, along with 1,800 fans singing their hearts out, Wales pressured, creating half chance, after half chance. Then the moment came that I’ll probably replay in my nightmares forever.

The ball broke to Robert Earnshaw inside the 6 yard box, with Joe Hart scrambling back. All he had to do was put the ball in the back of the net and Wales would have the draw that they deserved. Unfortunately, he leant back to far and put the ball over the bar. This brought some ironic cheers from the silent majority in the stadium, but – to be fair to Earnie – I thought he was flagged offside. Nothing would’ve been worse than him slotting the ball in only for it to be ruled offside. Then again, I could’ve just been making that up.

Wales pressed for a winner, but it didn’t come. England had one opportunity, they scored, they won the match. I was resigned to defeat and when I returned to work on the Thursday I’d be wearing an England top. Am I disappointed? No. England won the points, but Wales won the plaudits. The England fans left early, we couldn’t hear them sneaking out. The Barry Horns treated us to one last blast of their repetoire. Considering we lost, we were in a surprisingly good mood.

Insert Derogatory Comment on Ashley Cole Here.

Wembley is an impressive stadium, but watching a football match there was so disappointing. With corporates, extortionate prices, a booze ban and being located in a stupid area, it’s no wonder that the famous cauldron atomosphere at the stadium no longer exists. Instead football there is rather tepid, with the possible exception of an FA Cup final. Not that we didn’t try to help it spur on.

Tragically, when we returned home (about hour and a half later), we heard the story that overshowed the evening’s events. The brutal murder of Cardiff, Wales & football fan Mike Dye at the young age of 44 would be the impending memory of the game. As it stands right now, nobody has been charged with his murder, and as I write this, nobody is in custody. Disappointingly, the gutter press of The Sun & The Daily Mail took the route that they so often do, digging up a reported hooligan conviction from 20 years ago (Dye was part of a pitch invasion – well lock me up and throw away the key, I’ve been part of one too! There’s pictures of me when Colwyn Bay beat FC United as well!), which has seemingly covered up the most important fact – that a man died going to a football match.

It’s a damn shame, as at Wembley there was no trouble, open light hearted teasing between the Auld Enemy, and a spirited performance in a game of football that had one yellow card. This should have been the story of the match, not poor Mike Dye.

Rest in Peace Mike, my condolances to your family.